The swingers who never were

Dominic Sandbrook argues that everybody has it wrong about the 1960s: far from being a decade of rev

Tony Blair has a curious relationship with his youth. At times, a few years ago, it was easy to imagine that the Prime Minister had spent most of the 1960s practising guitar licks and stage moves with his good friends Paul and Mick - now Sir Paul and Sir Mick - so keen were his advisers to sell him as a child of that decade. It was evidently neither here nor there that he was born in 1953, and therefore spent most of the 1960s in short trousers and all of them at a succession of private schools.

Yet it was this same Prime Minister who, outlining his plans for satellite tracking of offenders and the abolition of jury trial last year, announced "the end of the 1960s liberal social consensus on law and order". Although the decade had coincided with "a huge breakthrough in terms of freedom of expression", he said, it had also been a period of "freedom without responsibility" which "spawned a group of young people who were brought up without parental discipline, without proper role models and without any sense of responsibility to or for others".

Politicians often make bad historians, and Blair, who spent most of the 1960s in the distinctly Victorian surroundings of Fettes College, is not a good guide to the social and cultural changes of that period. Michael Howard probably has clearer memories, but his experience was hardly representative. In 1962 he was elected president of the Cambridge Union; in 1964 he was called to the Bar; in 1966 he unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary seat; and in 1975, he married the 1960s model Sandra Paul. His wife, incidentally, has nothing but good to say about the period. It was, she said shortly after Blair's diatribe, "a creative time" in which "parents brought [their children] up to be less prejudiced".

Arguing about the past comes naturally to politicians. To sell your own vision to the public, it makes sense to draw contrasts with exaggerated portraits of what went before. In the 1940s and 1950s, Labour politicians recalled the misery of the 1930s, even though the Depression was much milder in Britain than elsewhere and (thanks partly to the maligned Neville Chamberlain) the country already had one of the world's most comprehensive welfare systems. And Blair is not the first to castigate the 1960s. During the Thatcher years, the Conservatives used the 1960s as a scapegoat for everything from rising crime to falling productivity. Norman Tebbit called BBC culture "the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the 1960s", while Margaret Thatcher compared the 1950s, which had been "clean and orderly, structured and courteous" favourably with the 1960s, a time of "permissiveness", "aggressive verbal hostility" and "instant gratification". And - would you believe her nerve? - the Sixties were "selfish and uncaring".

To the historian, all this is nonsense. How can a decade be "third-rate"? How do you measure such a thing: by economic output, by political stability, by cultural expression, by the results of the national football team? How can any decade, whether the 1960s or the 1980s, be "selfish"?

The truth is that most of this stuff - the talk about permissiveness, falling standards, a liberal consensus on law and order, and so on - tells us more about the values of the people who believe it than it does about the complexities of the 1960s themselves. If most writers and TV producers are to be believed, almost everyone who lived in Britain during the 1960s was aged between 16 and 30, regularly snapped up the latest records by the Beatles and the Stones, smoked enormous quantities of dope and took to "free love" with eager abandon. As one journalist who worked on the underground press later put it: "It was all an incredibly romantic era: girls were incredibly beautiful and luscious and they didn't have Aids and didn't wear knickers. There was always enough money to be comfortable, there was good music, dope, sex, and above all there was not conforming."

Such recollections are laughably detached from reality. True, different periods are marked by particular cultural concerns or national "moods"; if they weren't, there wouldn't be much sense in dividing them up into periods. But just as historians have teased out the subtleties and nuances of life in the 1930s - the social and technological changes that made the period more than one of breadlines and dole queues - so they are beginning to look behind the myths of the 1960s, too.

Where they once saw a "cultural revolution", historians now see much stronger evidence of continuity, caution and conservatism. We often think of long-haired guitar-toting students, our Dear Leader being a notable example. But just one in ten young people in the late 1960s went to university. Most did not join communes or have orgies or march against the Vietnam war; instead, they spent their days at work and their evenings watching TV, drinking in the pub or pursuing harmless hobbies. Even students were more conservative than we imagine: a survey at Leeds in 1968 found that just 4 per cent identified with the radical left, while the largest group, 35 per cent, supported Ted Heath's Conservatives.

Indeed, almost anywhere you look you can find evidence that belies the myths of permissiveness and revolution. Was there really a cultural revolution? A million people rushed out every Saturday to buy the latest hit singles; but two million men and boys went in pursuit of fish, and a staggering 19 million people pottered about the garden. Far from transforming the lives of the nation, the Pill was largely unknown: in 1970, a survey found that only nine in a hundred single women had ever taken it, and in any case, birth control had been widespread for years anyway in the form of the humble condom. Far from losing themselves in a whirlwind of orgies and affairs, young people were marrying and settling down earlier than ever before: in 1970, the average age of a bride fell below 23 for the first time. According to every survey, most people still had the same number of sexual partners as their parents had had before them, which is to say just two or three. And yes, it is true that crime was on the increase: but then crime had been rising for decades anyway, and Britain was still one of the safest and most orderly countries in the world. As the magazine New Society put it at the very end of the decade: "Shouldn't one talk of the Cautious Sixties, rather than the Swinging Sixties?"

Both the great myths of the Sixties - peace and love on the one hand, permissiveness and corruption on the other - are feeble, lazy stereotypes. The curious thing is that the latter myth, en- capsulated by Blair's talk of "freedom without responsibility", has proved so durable. It made sense for Thatcher and Tebbit to attack the 1960s because, in so doing, they implicitly validated their own project. Thatcherism was based on a repudiation of the recent past, whether in the form of Harold Wilson's Labour governments or Harold Macmillan's "one-nation" Toryism. The assault on the 1960s worked as a kind of shorthand, encompassing everything from strikes and inflation to Dennis Potter and football hooliganism - just as Labour's invocations of the 1930s had worked in 1945, awakening old anxieties and fresh hopes.

But it is extraordinary that Tony Blair feels the need to repeat it today, rather as if Macmillan had prepared for the 1959 election campaign by lobbing barbs at Stanley Baldwin. In fact the parallel is closer than you might think. Macmillan, like Blair, remained transfixed by the myths of the past. He asked his chancellor Derick Heathcoat Amory: "What is wrong with inflation, Derry?" "You're thinking of your constituents in the 1930s?" Amory replied. "Yes, I am thinking of the underuse of resources," said Macmillan. "Let's overuse them!" When Amory then tried to rein in Macmillan's expansionist instincts, explaining the dangers of inflation, the prime minister wrote: "This is a very bad paper. Indeed, a disgraceful paper. It might have been written by Mr Neville Chamberlain's ghost."

Macmillan soon discovered that the challenges of the 1960s were very different from those of the 1930s. Blair, in his turn, will find that the 1960s are history. Their veterans, like old soldiers who retell stories about Ypres or Arnhem, will slip away, and they will be left to the historians. Complexity and contingency will be found where once all was thought to be simple. Indeed, younger academics have already started this process.

To Blair, all this is probably irrelevant and uninteresting. He has never shown much interest in the past: even the history of his own party is written off as one of futility and failure, and his asinine campaign slogans ("Forward, not back", for example) say it all. And yet, like every other politician, he too is a prisoner of the past - not the 1960s, which he knew only as a schoolboy, but the 1980s. Just as Macmillan never forgot his party's supposed failures in the 1930s, when he had been an ambitious young MP, so Blair has never forgotten Labour's electoral humiliations in the Thatcher years. His debts to the Iron Lady, covering everything from personal style to NHS reform, from the "special relationship" to the tabloid press, have been well chronicled. In bashing the 1960s, however, he proves that he shares her sense of history, too.

When he was elected in 1997, most of Blair's supporters thought he would take on the legacy of the 1980s, but instead of breaking with the recent past, he repeats it, identifying the same stereotyped historical adversaries. Instead of summoning up images of unemployment, recession and Cecil Parkinson, he invokes the same old stereotypes of long hair, marijuana smoke and champagne socialists. Thatcher's attacks on the 1960s made political sense: she was not only talking about the recent past but also trying to justify her own political values and administrative record. When Blair attacks the 1960s, he is aiming tired punches at a threadbare Aunt Sally, in which few people now believe anyway. It has become a cliche to describe Blair as the heir to the handbag, but in the end, cliches of this kind resonate because they ring true.

Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had it So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles is published on 5 May by Little, Brown (£20)